As anyone near a TV or in an office pool knows, George Mason University defeated University of North Carolina (the defending National Champions) yesterday 65-60. Coach Jim Larranaga has built a program at GMU that everyone in Northern Virginia can be proud of and should rally around. First, his teams play a fundamentally solid and defensively minded game. In fact, Coach L is the author of the "scramble defense" an aggressive trapping defense that disrupts opponents and creates easy scoring opportunities your team. This years team is well-balanced offensively with 5 players averaging in double digits. There is a great story told by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about when he was playing back in HS at Power Memorial in the 1960s. His coach took them to a game in Madison Square Garden to see the great Boston Celtics play the NY Knicks. At the end of the game the coach turned to all of them and said, "who was the leading scorer for the Celtics?" The boys argued among each other because they couldn't tell. The coach explained to them that the Celtics play basketball the way it is supposed to be played. Nobody scored more than 20 points, but they had 5 or 6 players score between 15 and 20. Kareem was a dominate scorer, but he understood the value of team play as reflected in his teams at Power Memorial, UCLA, and his NBA championships at Milwaukee and then with Los Angeles (especially those Laker teams with Magic Johnson). Coach Larranaga's team play in a similar way --- tough defense, share the ball on offense, and play inside-out. Coach L's speech before the game yesterday against UNC --- "Their fans believe their players are Superman, but our fans know we are kryponite" must go down as one of the best lines a coach has given his players before hitting the court, and they played that way.
GMU success is not a fluke. Coach L has built this program up over 9 years. His teams with George Evans (a young man who entered the military after HS, but then grew into a 6'9" impressive frame) were fantastic and made the NCAA tournament. He aggressively recruited in a 90 mile radius from the campus. His players graduate. His assistant coaches develop into head coaches throughout the nation. And he is a coach of great integrity. Consider the now infamous incident with Tony Skinn in the CAA Tournament that caused so much discussion and ESPN clips. The low blow delivered by Skinn was not caught by the referees, nor was it caught on camera during game time. Coach L called Skinn over during the game (after he has just hit a 3 pointer to bring the game to 4 points) and asked him what happened. Skinn told him. Coach L acted not because of officials (who made no call) or CAA officials (who didn't have a view at the time either), but out of a sense of doing the right thing to teach a lesson to his young player. Skinn was benched, and subsequently given a 1 game suspension. This was imposed not by the league or even the NCAA, but by Coach L and GMU. Rightfully, Coach L received praise from everyone --- most notably Coach K.
Too many mid-major coaches try to take short cuts (academically and otherwise), but Coach L has kept priorities and built a program at GMU. I have been coaching youth basketball for years and am currently coaching AAU basketball again for the Fairfax Stars organization. I enjoy taking my teams and any young players to see Coach L's teams play because of the way they play. I have also enjoyed attending Coach L's practices to watch how he organizes his practices and teaches his players. GMU can be very proud of what Coach L has built over these past 9 years -- he has a clean and classy program.
So GMU's victories against Michigan State and UNC are well-deserved. But there are also some rational choice mechanics at work that all slightly out of sync organizations can learn from when trying to compete against the heavy weight programs in one's field.
First, the lure of the NBA has skimmed off some top HS talent in recent years and the "costs" of this fell on the major schools. UNC, for example, should have had JR Smith and Dwight Howard. Clearly MSU and UNC still has top flight athletes, but due to either skipping college or leaving college early to pursue NBA options does skim the cream of the crop and this has led to greater parity among college basketball teams.
Second, senior led teams are more effective than freshman led teams. No matter how good freshman players are, a senior player of similar skill level will outcompete the freshman player 8 out of 10 times. The mid-major players stay for 4 years, the major schools lose their players to the NBA. Consider Jim Calhoun's comments about Rudy Gay, who he hopes will be around next year, but as Calhoun understands may very well be sitting on an NBA bench making millions rather than helping U Conn continue its championship tradition.
Both the first and second reasons make the heavy weight programs less heavy weight than what they might have been 10 years ago. But even then there were always a chance for the less recognized programs to compete if they "dared to be different" and pursed high quality, but undervalued assets --- in other words act entrepreneurially in terms of building their organization or team.
This brings us to a third reason. Coach L follows The Money Ball type model of recruiting players. They are big time players, but their bodies were not quite big time. As Tony Skinn put it: "We have a lot of people on this team that came from big-time high school programs but were too small in the big time [college programs]. Coach Larranaga saw something in us and said 'Hey, come play at my school.'" Coach L saw something that the major coaches didn't see. His team primarily comes from within a 90 mile radius of Washington, DC (a strong hotbed of basketball talent --- though I am partial to the NJ-NY area as the stronger of the two east coast regions). But his players tend to be a little big smaller (6'7" center or a 6'0" point guard), a little skinny, or a little fatter, or a little slower, etc. They are just slightly off what the big time coaches are looking for, so that they are undervalued by the major programs and he is able to scoop them up. This is exactly the model the GMU Law School has followed (and allowed them to rise through the ranks of law schools) and also the model that our economics department in its best moments has followed and which has enabled us to build a program that can boast of 2 Nobel Prize winners and their research teams. As I always tell everyone, we are the best weird place to study economics in the world.
And on any given day, we can take on the Harvard's or the Chicago's of our world and walk away holding our own in terms of tackling important economic issues of our day. It may be surprising to an outsider when a guy like James Buchanan (1986) or Vernon Smith (2002) wins the Nobel Prize, but for those close to the work ethic and brilliant insights of these men and their research teams it is not a suprise at all. I think of GMU's basketball team the same way. Coach L has worked long and hard in the game of college basketball, he has built a winning approach, and a great tradition of playing basketball with intensity, speed and execution. When you combine talent with a work ethic good things happen and that is precisely what GMU has done in its approach of building on excellence --- whether that is to be found in the classroom, the court room, or on the basketball court!